Heritage: The Grand National came to Romford in 1842

The Crabbie's Grand National. Picture: PA

The Crabbie's Grand National. Picture: PA - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

To mark this year’s Grand National, Prof Ged Martin uncovers an amazing story of a local race involving the top steeplechasers of the day

The first official Aintree Grand National was run in 1839, the year the Eastern Counties railway reached Romford

One February day in 1842, the railway company staged a promotional steeplechase at Romford, a curtain-raiser for the fourth National, a fortnight later.

With the help of local farmers, a two mile course was laid out alongside the line, from South Street to Crow Lane. There were thirty fences.

A special train, carrying 250 London businessmen, operated as a mobile grandstand, allowing them to follow the race at close quarters.

With a one o’clock start, the jaunt was an extended lunch break – a good advertising stunt for the new railway.

Prize money of £100 attracted one star entry. Lottery, ridden by Jem Mason, had won that first Grand National. The Red Rum of his day, Lottery drew the crowds.

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But, even with a two-stone handicap, it was hard to attract rival entries. Lottery could trot faster than most nags could gallop.

Lottery’s owner, London horse dealer John Elmore, also entered Sam Weller, named for a Dickens character.

Sam’s rider, P. Barker, had twice finished fourth in the National. Anonymous, ridden by Irish amateur jockey Allan Macdonough (second at Aintree in 1841) was another challenger.

Lottery (6-5 on) was the favourite. You could get 3-1 against Sam Weller and Anonymous.

Even though jockey Bartholomew Bretherton had won the 1840 Grand National, nobody rated his mount, Buffoon. The horse was well named – it fell three times.

Creole, ridden by Tom Olliver (who would ride in nineteen Nationals!), completed the field of five.

The paddock was near Romford station. Victoria Road cut through it about 1855.

We can picture the scene: Barker in green silks, Mason and Olliver wearing crimson, Bretherton brown with purple sleeves, Macdonough white with black sleeves. All sported gleaming white breeches.

They’re off! Anonymous led the pack past today’s Lidl, where they forded the Rom – “a rummy little river” but still too wide to be a safe water jump.

Local farmers on horseback had gathered at Waterloo Road, where field gates were opened to let the horses pass. The going now became heavy.

Anonymous was still ahead at Jutsums Lane, where a high bank and ditch led down into the roadway, with a small hedge beyond.

Then came the biggest obstacle on the course, a six-foot bank with “an ugly drop” – a “yawner” in racing slang.

Lottery and Sam Weller cleared the bank together – Elmore’s jockeys now working as a team.

Opposite today’s West Ham training ground, all five runners skidded at a half-way flag and turned back for home. Presumably the train also clanked into reverse, shunting the VIP punters back towards Romford station.

Creole threw his rider and bolted, but was caught by a spectator. Although briefly stunned by his fall, Olliver determinedly remounted.

Crossing Waterloo Road again, it looked like a sprint finish between Anonymous and Lottery.

But, approaching the Rom, Anonymous fell badly at a rail fence, rolling over his jockey. Somehow Macdonough got back into the saddle, but his chances were gone.

It was a tame finish. Lottery coasted home eight lengths ahead of stablemate Sam Weller, with the unfancied and clumsy Buffoon coming third.

Although the train returned to London, many racegoers remained: 150 joined a celebration dinner at the King’s Head, a market inn.

A horse dealer and racing enthusiast, landlord Henry Orbell would have welcomed the business: he’d narrowly escaped bankruptcy in 1838.

At Aintree, two weeks later, Sam Weller dumped Barker before Becher’s. Anonymous, ridden by its owner, ran nowhere. Still tired from the Romford outing, Lottery was pulled up by Mason at the Canal Turn. Tom Olliver won on a 12-1 outsider, Gaylad – not a Romford entry.

Nothing came of local big talk about further steeplechases. Indeed, the day the Grand National came to Romford was forgotten – until now!